Chapter 1: Identity
The first indication that Peter had that something wasn't quite right:
He turned up for work an hour late…
and Liz didn't even give him a hard time about it.
Or dock any of his stipend.
As usual, Peter couldn't explain that he was late because of his secret life as one of Manhattan's longest serving superheroes; he started explaining in a rush that the Rhino had interrupted his commute, which was totally true, in the broadest sense. Liz didn't even roll her eyes. She just waved him through and later Peter would discover that she didn't even log the tardy.
Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Peter filed it away as maybe Liz just having a good day for once, and he continued hurrying down to the Osborn building which housed all of ESU's laboratories. He didn't have a class that needed him until eleven, so he had still had time to check his current experiments and maybe do his daily check up on the third year marine biologists' aquarium.
The second indication that something was wrong:
Peter checked all of his cell cultures,
noting their growth levels as quickly as possible,
but he couldn't work fast enough to make up for the time he'd lost battling the Rhino.
Peter resigned himself to a late finish,
and dropped by the aquarium to do his basic water checks…
…only to find Gwen there, already halfway through adjusting the pH levels for him.
Gwen. Gwen Stacy. Doing something voluntarily which wasn't on her usually packed to-do list. Peter opened his mouth to say something, because apparently the world had gone mad, but Gwen just gave him the weirdest look in the world, passed him a log of information about the lobsters' behavior that morning, and hurried off to her office.
Peter watched her go, wondering who'd died.
The third indication:
Peter made it into his eleven o'clock class with plenty of time to spare.
Dr. Connors introduced Peter to the new second year Ecology students as his lab assistant,
for the duration of the class,
instead of ignoring him until they needed him,
the students kept staring at him.
Peter ignored the staring and tried to help the ones who asked for assistance. He liked this work. The class was too large for Dr. Connors to help all of them individually, and most of their questions were about the microscopes and the large unwieldy field guides anyway, questions Peter could answer with his eyes closed. The job was pretty perfect for Peter: he could work on his PhD and get some funding from assisting Dr. Connors with his undergraduate students. His work ranged from classroom lab work to assisting with dissertation projects, and Peter enjoyed both. He was even starting to think about a future in scientific education.
It was a double session, and the students kept staring at him throughout, muttering things that he couldn't hear; it wasn't the first time that Peter had envied Matt Murdock's enhanced senses, but maybe it was better he couldn't hear what the students were saying.
The fourth indication:
Going to the staff cafeteria to get his — thankfully subsidized — cooked lunch,
and the serving guy gave him a free fruit pie.
And also his number, scrawled on the side of Peter's coffee cup.
Peter only realized after he'd swiped his staff card at the till, and that was only because the guy was smart enough to write 'Dave! CALL ME' above the number, otherwise Peter probably wouldn't have recognized it as a cellphone number. He glanced back in surprise, and the guy — Dave, apparently — made a 'call me!' gesture. Peter hid a grimace by turning back quickly and heading for his usual corner; he could see MJ's head bent over her cellphone, and Harry staring vaguely out of the window. When he got to their table, he put his tray down and sat down opposite his friends.
"I've had the weirdest day," Peter sighed.
Harry startled, beamed at Peter automatically, and then his smile fell almost immediately. "Uh," Harry muttered. "Hi?"
"We know you had a weird day," MJ said, putting her phone down. "We saw the news. You should have texted us."
Peter froze, looking up at them with dawning horror. The news? What the hell ? He thought back quickly to Liz not giving him grief for being late and to the muttering in the lab and Gwen Stacy voluntarily doing his work. There was only one option that made sense, and it made no sense at all:
The news must have outed him as Spider-Man.
He squinted at his friends appraisingly. It’s honestly not what he’d ever expected. Of course he’d thought his identity would be revealed at some point. But he’d pictured screaming and pointing and angst and tears and so much grovelling. There was none of that. Instead, Harry had ink all over his hands. He'd said something yesterday about Professor Gilbert giving him a mountain of marking to do. MJ didn't technically work for ESU, but she and Liz seemed to have some sort of deal going on; MJ got access to the staff facilities, and Liz turned up at a lot of MJ's plays for someone on an ESU salary.
Peter had given a lot of thought as to how the people in his life would react to being Spider-Man.
Only three people in the world even knew that he was Spider-Man: Nicholas Fury, because he knew everything ; Iron Man, because Tony Stark couldn't leave a single thing alone in his life; and Johnny Storm. Peter smiled fondly just thinking Johnny's name. Boy, he had it bad.
Johnny sulked for a week solid on finding out Peter and Spider-Man were one and the same, and he'd known Peter for much less time than either Harry or MJ. Peter imagined them reacting to his secret very differently. MJ had a decent right hook on her, and Peter's face was miraculously punch-free. Something was definitely going on.
"Want us to beat him up for you?" Harry said. "Gilbert's got a lifetime supply of liquid ice in his lab, I'm sure between us we could fashion a decent delivery system, douse his head in nitrogen. Might even snap off his boy-band hair in the process."
" Harry, " MJ chastised gently, before leaning forwards and pulling Peter's hands towards her, clasping them intently. "Peter, it's gonna be okay. You were much too good for him anyway."
Peter looked at her helplessly, lost. "What do you mean?" His stomach dropped. He knew he should have checked up with Johnny after his fight with the Rhino, but he'd been running so late… He yanked his hands from MJ and fumbled for his StarkPhone as he stared at her. Harry's right in front of him and Peter can't think of another him that MJ might mean; his mouth tastes like acid as he asks, "Did something happen to Johnny?"
"More like, he happened to something," Harry muttered and Peter's phone clattered to the table between them, because his hands couldn't hold it, his hands couldn't do anything but tremble. Oh god. Oh god. Peter was so concerned with fighting the stupid Rhino and getting to work to check his phone, to check up on his own boyfriend. His mind reeled with what had happened.
Johnny had been fine last night. They'd fought the Sinister Six along with the rest of the Fantastic Four; it had been a delightful fight, really. Peter liked having an excuse to spend time with Johnny as Spider-Man. It had been one of those fights that got them both wound up; Johnny had been brimming with so much extra adrenaline that they ended up racing to their usual spot, and they made out on top of the Statue of Liberty until the small hours. Yeah, it had been a really good night; Peter had been able to check that Johnny was intact after the fight personally.
What the hell could have happened in the last twelve hours?
"Didn't you see the news this morning?" MJ asked, her voice dropping to the soft tone she used with kids and theater critics. She exchanged a worried glance with Harry and Peter got it together enough to pick up his phone, even though his hands were still shaking.
Forty-three missed calls, his notifications said. Twenty from Johnny, nine from the Bugle, and fourteen withheld numbers. Peter had put it onto vibrate as soon as he hit the subway and saw the telltale sign of supervillain destruction in the distance; the last thing he wanted was for someone to identify him from the distinctive Professor Proton ringtone sounding from his pocket. He hadn't turned it back on afterwards. That was apparently a mistake.
His text message icon displayed 99+. Peter rarely got more than 20 in a single day, usually from MJ panicking over what to wear; she still hadn't 100% grasped yet that someone's place on the Kinsey scale had no relation to their fashion sense, but she was getting better. Peter's relentless inability to pick his fashion on anything other than based on cost (low) and comfortableness (high) was working to persuade her.
Peter thumbed open the list and squinted, going to the thread including messages from Johnny first; the heavy weight in the pit of his stomach lessened when he saw that the flood of messages from him were fairly recent. He sighed. Whatever was going on, Johnny was alive, and that was the most important thing. The messages made little sense, though, ranging from CALL ME to OMG DO NOT LOOK AT THE BUGLE WEBSITE and DEFINITELY DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS.
"Peter," MJ said, with a deeper, more serious tone. He looked up at her. "I'm sorry, I didn't think I'd have to be the one to break it to you."
The weight in Peter's stomach deepened again, because MJ only spoke with that voice when it was something really very serious; he kept hold of his phone but looked up at her. "MJ, just tell me straight," Peter said. "What's going on?"
MJ swallowed, and then looked at him with such kindness that her words didn't really compute for a while. "Peter, I'm so sorry — Johnny cheated on you."
Peter blinked, staring at her while the words sank in. He frowned. He knew what the words meant when they were stitched together like that, but they didn't make any sense. It can't mean like it sounded. Johnny wouldn't cheat on him. He wouldn't.
So he said it, firmly: "Johnny wouldn't do that," and in return, got matching twin looks of sympathy from MJ and Harry. "He wouldn't, " Peter repeated, and maybe he shouted it a little, because some of the English Lit professors looked over from their table nearby… and glanced at him with the same sympathetic looks that MJ and Harry were still giving him, before looking away.
"I'm sorry, dude," Harry said, and he held out his tablet for Peter to take. Peter took it automatically and then realized what Harry might be handing him, and he almost faltered, but it was too late, he could already see the image on the screen, and—
"We're really sorry, Peter," MJ said, her words rushing together. "But we both love you, very much, and you are not alone, okay? You've got us. We'll get you through this, I promise."
"He mustn't have thought someone would have a telescopic camera trained on the Statue of Liberty at that time of the morning," Harry said, and Peter stared dumbly at the photograph, because he was right: neither Peter nor Johnny had thought it was even a slight possibility.
To be fair, the photograph wasn't even that incriminating — the camera had obviously only been able to catch one angle of the Statue of Liberty, and one a couple of moments of Peter and Johnny's make-out session had been caught. It was almost a chaste kiss— Peter's mask rolled up and Johnny's hands on his face as they kissed, mostly just breathing into each other's mouths at that point, just so damned grateful to be alive and together.
But it was absolutely clear who the two participants of the kiss were — both costumes so distinctively designed, and Johnny's face clear enough, and there was footage afterwards, of Spider-Man swinging up to latch onto a helicopter, and Johnny flaming off: there was no room for them to get away with saying it might be lookalikes.
"Huh," Peter said, and handed the tablet back to Harry in a daze. Well, his friends' support was nice, he supposed. He was going to need that love if they were going to ever understand the secret he was keeping from them.
Which they were probably going to find out sooner or later, when they put the pieces together. Peter was always missing when Spider-Man attacked. He was the same height as Spider-Man. And Spider-Man had been pictured kissing Peter's boyfriend.
Oh god, he felt sick.
"I think it's finally hit him," MJ whispered to Harry, and Peter looked upwards with a lurch, because they were misinterpreting the horror on his face.
Right now, they didn't know he was Spider-Man. And all the world at large knew about Peter Parker was that he was Johnny Storm’s boyfriend: Johnny was a celebrity, and insisted on dragging Peter to more red carpet events than Peter would ever be happy attending. Ergo, the world would think that Johnny was cheating on him.
Oh, Peter thought dumbly. This probably wasn't the scenario Sir Walter Scott had in mind when he came up with what a tangled web we weave .
Well, at least now Peter knew why everyone was being so nice to him. Pity. Relentless pity.
Peter ate his lunch in a daze, glazing over while MJ and Harry spouted platitudes at him; MJ had almost freaked out, though, when Peter wouldn't agree to stay with them for a couple of nights.
"You can't stay at your place, he has a key," MJ argued.
"Of course he has a key," Peter said. "I gave it to him. I'm hardly going to take it back over a misunderstanding like this."
"A misunderstanding, " MJ shrieked, as Harry instantly did his best to calm her down.
Peter buried his head in his free pie and then scurried out of the cafeteria to find a quiet place to text Johnny, but the influx of texts and phone calls seemed to have killed his phone. Peter went to see Dr. Connors to ask to use his landline, but Connors misinterpreted his appearance, and immediately ordered Peter to go home and take the rest of the day off.
Peter really wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth so he left, enduring a couple of pitying looks from Liz and Gwen on his rush out of there, and he was halfway towards walking to Baxter Building to find Johnny when he realized the problem: there were paparazzi haunting the whole front of the building.
He paused, looking up, realizing that there were more cameramen up in the skyscrapers surrounding Baxter Building. Probably to get a photo of Spider-Man, Peter thought, giddily.
Peter dug his winter hat out of the side pocket in his satchel and tugged it on, pushing as much as his hair as he could to cover his face. It was about the best thing he had on him to disguise his identity; thankfully, while Johnny Storm and Spider-Man had their faces (as such, in the latter case) plastered across media, the public weren't overly sure what Peter Parker looked like. The photos that did exist, from Johnny's red carpet outings, were of Peter at his best; scrubbed up and in the cleanest, fanciest clothes he owned. Hopefully, they wouldn't recognize Peter on the street. It wasn't a good enough disguise to be able to walk through the front doors of the Baxter Building, but it was probably good enough to be out on the street.
There was a public phone on the corner from the Baxter Building; no one even looked at him twice when he passed them, which was a good sign. Peter hunched over the phone and dialled Johnny's personal landline, the one only he had access to.
"Peter, thank goodness," Johnny breathed, picking up after two rings. "Are you okay? Where are you?"
"I'm fine," Peter said. "I'm on the phone on the corner."
A sound of clattering — Johnny crossing the room to look out of his window. "Nice hat," Johnny said.
"Johnny—" Peter started.
"It's kind of funny at this point," Johnny said. "Sue's giving me the silent treatment, and Reed's set up some sort of a filter to broadcast all the best headlines throughout the building, except for when the kids are around. I've taken to skulking around with Franklin just to avoid the passive aggression."
"I had no idea we even could be photographed at that distance," Peter said, miserable with the whole situation. He knew that while Johnny can see out, that the windows were shielded from anyone looking in, but he imagined he could see Johnny anyway, resting against the window, phone in his hand. "Let alone that anyone would—" He couldn’t think of any word other than intrude .
"We both should have been more careful," Johnny said, sounding sad. "I'm not going to let you shoulder the entire blame."
Peter sighed. "I really wanna see you. But—"
"Yeah," Johnny sighed. "Yeah, I'm probably going to have to lay low for a couple of days. Spidey too." They both sighed together at that one. "If it helps, there's about twenty papers and magazines out right now with my face on that you can look at."
"It doesn't help," Peter said.
"It's fine," Johnny said. "Really. Sue will forgive me anything, I have decades of embarrassing experience of this. I can take her sulking for a week or two. And I can turn into living flame, I can avoid the paps."
"You shouldn't have to take any of this," Peter said, fiercely. "Not because of me."
"Pete," Johnny said, somehow making the single syllable say a hundred different things at once. "I knew what I was getting into, falling in love with you. I fell anyway. Your work as Spider-Man is more important than anything I do. You've said it yourself a thousand times: Spider-Man has a responsibility to so many people. He's more important than either of us. This will blow over. Scandal always does."
"Oh, and maybe stay over at your Aunts, y'know? She's ex-directory, you should get less hassle."
"I want to be with you," Peter muttered, scowling across at the press camped outside the Baxter Building.
"Me too," Johnny said. "Call me when you get to May's? And recharge your phone so I can sext you; it's gonna be the only way I'm gonna survive dinner with Frosty McSue."
Peter made a sad, strangled noise.
"It's gonna be fine," Johnny said, and Peter liked the way he said it. Firm. Certain. Yeah, Peter thought, it was going to be okay. "I'll come get you in a couple of days and we can work out an action plan."
"Yeah," Peter said, and then twitched at a familiar figure in the distance perking up and coming in his direction. "Crud, I think Robbie's noticed me."
Johnny swore, obviously as disappointed as Peter to have their time cut short. "Go," Johnny urged him. "I'll talk to you on the phone tonight. I promise."
"I love you," Peter said, feeling helpless.
"I love you back," Johnny said, and as always, the words filled Peter with an indefinable strength.
Waiting at Aunt May's turned out to be an interminable experience, for multiple reasons:
Most painful was the message from Doctor Connors: he'd been a good friend of Peter's parents, and knew Aunt May from way back when, and had successfully extrapolated where Peter might go to lay low. The message was basically orders to stay away from the university for two weeks of paid leave. They understood the attention Peter was under was not his own fault, and the university appreciated his work, but maybe it was best for the students' study that it not be interrupted by the press.
Next was a phone call from Tony Stark, which came through the moment Peter plugged his StarkPhone into charge — Tony had installed a back door on all of his systems which meant his calls were prioritized. Spider-Man was essentially grounded for two weeks. It wasn't Peter's fault at all, Tony tried to stress; the two weeks thing was a formula they'd figured out from Tony's personal and varied indiscretions. Sometimes the public got in the way too much if they were distracted by a superhero's current celebrity shenanigans. It was for the good of the general public, but on top of the university's orders to stay home it stung like a massive rejection.
Liz also posted him his week's payslip, probably also forwarded by Connors, and she had thoughtfully included a raft of self-help leaflets from the Student Health Center: what to do when you were grieving, how to cope with heartbreak, how to love and move on. Peter took out his rage on them, screwing them up and ripping them into teeny, tiny pieces.
Aunt May just kept cooking and baking for him; Peter took to doing push-ups in his old bedroom for hours to work off all the pity cake. It was worse than a kindly-meant overfeeding, because Aunt May kept muttering about that "evil Spider-Man" while she cooked, loudly enough for Peter to hear it wherever he skulked in his childhood home.
It was only bearable because Peter figured out how to lock his phone so only Johnny, MJ and Harry could reach him on it. He spent hours talking to Johnny about nothing and everything. Johnny was grounded too; at least both of them were together in their misery. Johnny recounted the funniest story of the week: he tried to leave the Baxter Building just to buy a sandwich, and everyone in the deli booed him.
"For cheating on you!" Johnny yelled. "How does it feel to have the whole of New York on your side?" Surreal, they both agreed.
One morning, Peter woke up to MJ, Harry, Aunt May, and — embarrassingly (MJ had apparently aggressively befriended everyone in Peter's life) — Gwen Stacy. They were sat in the sitting room, with a glittery paper banner above them reading INTERVENTION. He was still in his pyjamas. He stared at them, and then turned around to go back upstairs.
"You spend hours on the phone with him," MJ yelled, "it's not healthy!"
Peter filtered his phone from that point on so MJ and Harry couldn't even get through; it took two days of MJ grovelling and three apologies where she agreed that the intervention was probably premature before he would even let MJ see him, and she agreed that he should get to talk to Johnny first in person before Peter could move on appropriately. Peter just skipped the part where he had zero intention to move on, because his boyfriend hadn't done anything wrong.
"I just… I have to see him," Peter said, his mouth downturned as he sat in Aunt May's front room, sneaking bags of Aunt May's excess pity cookies into her purse every time she left the room. He looked up at MJ. " Please ."
MJ pushed her mouth into a line. It was her thinking face. "I might have an idea," she said, slowly. "But only if you promise to think this through and not rush back into his arms just because you miss him."
"I promise," Peter said.
"Then I definitely have an idea," MJ said, beaming at him.
"Special delivery," Peter said in his gruffest voice.
It was Johnny that came forward, which Peter was glad about; he wasn't sure how Sue or Reed would react on seeing him.
"We didn’t order anything," Johnny said, muscles bunching threateningly as he advanced, because he thought someone was threatening his family. "How did you even get up the elevator?"
When Johnny got closer, Peter lifted his head up and tilted the courier's hat up so it didn't obscure his face any more. Johnny yelled and surged forwards, grabbing Peter in a delighted hug, Peter's box falling to the ground beneath them.
"MJ figured it out, borrowed it from her current costume department," Peter said, letting Johnny bodily pick him up and spin him around, even though it made him dizzy. He caught a glimpse of Reed, Ben and Sue watching them from their sitting room as Johnny twirled him; Sue was already getting to her feet, a concerned frown on her face. "People don't look twice at couriers."
"You're certifiably crazy and I love it," Johnny said, putting Peter down and drinking in the sight of him like it had been years and not just a few long, long days. "Come on." He wrapped his hand in Peter's and pulled him towards the stairs.
"Peter—" Sue started.
"Sue, c'mon," Johnny said, looking at his sister with a strained expression, and Peter's heart clenched at the sight of it, and he stepped forward, desperate to say something, but Johnny looked across at him and shook his head. No. Don't.
"It's nice to see you," Sue said stiffly, obviously deciding it wasn't worth it to start a fight.
"It's not what you think," Peter said, and gripped onto Johnny's hand like it was the only anchor he had to the entire planet. Sue frowned, but Johnny dragged him away; Peter let himself be tugged, because he would always go wherever Johnny was.
As soon as the front door to Johnny's upstairs apartment closed behind them, Peter threw any attempt at dignity into the wind and just threw himself at Johnny, burying his arms around his neck and his face in his chest and if there was sobbing, Johnny was too nice to mention it — maybe because when Peter pulled back, feeling embarrassed but safe for the first time all week, Johnny's eyes were suspiciously moist too.
They stayed like that for a moment, just enjoying each other's company; it was testament to how much they missed each other that when they took the comforting embrace onto Johnny's bed, it stayed as just an unending hug. Peter tried his best not to make an embarrassing noise when Johnny stroked his hair.
"You shouldn't have said that to her," Johnny said.
Distracted by Johnny actually being there after a few days of his life being painfully Johnny-Storm-free, it took a moment for Peter to process the statement. He was Johnny-drunk; it was a thing that happened too often for Peter to be embarrassed by it any more. "Huh? Oh. Sue." He sagged, resting his head on Johnny's chest. "Maybe she should think about it. Have they even vaguely considered once that there's a scenario out there which means you didn't cheat on me?"
"No," Johnny said, and it sounds distinctly measured. Like Johnny was doing his best to scrub out all the resentment he felt over that from his voice.
"So she—" Peter started.
"And she mustn't," Johnny said, so firmly that Peter reluctantly lifted his cheek from Johnny's chest to look at him. Johnny's eyes weren't literally blazing, but it felt like they were, regardless. "I've told you, Peter. I'm in this with you for the long haul."
"I feel so guilty, and not just for the way your family is treating you. My friends and family, too," Peter said. "I trust them. I should tell them. They can keep a secret."
Johnny made an indiscriminate sound in the back of his throat. Peter squinted at him. Johnny sighed, realizing he wasn't going to get away with not explaining. "I'm the only one who gets to see you," Johnny said. “The world gets to see Spider-Man. Your family gets to see Peter Parker. And I'm lucky. I get both and the guy in-between. And I think he’s incredible, but I also know how weighed down he is by his secrets. How weighed down you are. And I can’t help but think if they were weighed down with your secret too, you’d take the pressure of it personally. There’s only so much of the earth one person can shoulder, even with superstrength."
“Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I should tell them," Peter sighed. “I guess I'm just scared."
“And with really good reason," Johnny pointed out. “Spider-Man has a thousand enemies who wouldn't think twice about attacking someone else to hurt you. And I don’t know if you've noticed, but— Pete, I'm mad about the people in your life too. You know how much I'm jealous of your relationship with your Aunt. MJ basically adopted me the moment she realized my shoe sense was better than hers. I want them safe too." Johnny gripped both of Peter’s hands tightly. “I can protect myself. They can’t. Let me do this for you. I love you."
“And your family?"
“You’re as much as my family as they are by now."
Peter flushed, and nodded over to where Johnny’s TV was running more headlines about Spider-Man and the Human Torch, thanks to Reed’s passive-aggressive hacking. “You know what I mean."
“Yeah," Johnny said. “And don’t worry about it. My family will forgive me anything. Literally anything. They’re dorks like that. I can take their snide comments."
"You shouldn't have to. Not for me."
Johnny laughed. "It's for me, webhead."
"Why, because I'm as neurotic and freak out to unbearable levels before doing difficult things and it's hard to get your Parker cuddle fix when I'm wearing holes into the carpet?" Peter considered it further. "And the walls. And the ceiling."
"Shut up, I could care less about holes in my apartment," Johnny said. "But that's mostly because I don't pay the repair bills; Reed just assumes damage happens because of my powers. He feels responsible for any damage my powers do, because it's his fault I have them."
"He really shouldn't have let a fifteen year old tag along on a mission to space."
" Exactly. "
To be continued on Day 5: Space! :D
Chapter 3: Space
[Mm okay space is maybe a tenuous link for this chapter but it is there! I promise! the accidentally-married-in-space fic will just have to come out later, it's too looonng.]
On the day Connors agreed Peter could return to work, Peter shoved a beanie low down over his face and bought every single newspaper and magazine that he had coupons for on the way, and he shoved them into his bag before swinging off to ESU -- the subway was a trauma to attempt on another day.
Peter clocked in for work before Liz was even manning the desk, and he scurried down to the labs, head down, running through his experiments before anyone could stop him and send him away. Gwen had actually kept them going for him, which was incredible. She definitely deserved an entire pan of Aunt May's pumpkin and chocolate swirl brownies.
The day's lab work wasn't bad. It wasn't great. Barely anyone asked for help, but that meant barely anyone recognized him or gave him that weird sad pitying look that nearly everyone in Peter's life had been giving him recently. Peter ended up slinking back to the lab to check the pH of his samples again, and while he waited for the machine to reboot, he furtively pulled out the newspapers and magazines to read them.
It wasn't as bad as Peter was expecting.
The Daily Bugle, naturally, was still decrying Spider-Man as a homewrecker. Peter would have teared up about the part where J. Jonah Jameson ranted for three column inches about Spider-Man breaking "their" photographer's heart, if he wasn't busy shaking his head over the irony.
Most of the tabloids said something lascivious about Johnny's romantic past, or slut-shamed him, and mentioned Spider-Man as New York's notorious boyfriend-stealing superhero, Spider-Man wherever they could cram in even the vaguest Spider-Man reference.
"WHO IS THIS PETER PARKER GUY ANYWAY?" Now International asked in blaring capital letters, and Peter huffed a laugh, because it was the most sensible headline he’d seen during the whole fiasco. And then the article continued: "78% OF NEW YORKERS THINK SPIDER-MAN DESERVES A GOOD LOVE MATCH; 74% BELIEVE THE HUMAN TORCH AND SPIDER-MAN WOULD BE AN ATTRACTIVE COUPLE." The article continued inside: "Only 12% of those interviewed believed that Peter Parker (19) would be a good influence on the fiery Storm."
Peter stared. Well. It wasn't a surprise.
"You really shouldn't be reading that," Johnny said, and Peter startled, and then smiled and smiled, apparently unable to wipe the beam from his face.
Peter leapt up from the stool and turned the grin at the person who infected him with it. "They got my age wrong," Peter said, jabbing at the offending block of text. "Do I look 19? Seriously?"
"That's what you're taking away from that article?" Johnny asked, moving in and sliding his arms around Peter smoothly, his ever-warm body heat reaching Peter through the thick material of his lab coat. Peter sighed into the embrace happily.
"Well, I already knew that New York press really didn't like me," Peter said. "I'm not entirely that surprised it extends to me as well." He pursed his mouth regretfully. "I suppose it was inevitable; Spider-Man is me on a good day, after all."
"Hey," Johnny said, leaning back and staring at Peter seriously. "Peter Parker is a hell of a guy. I won't let anyone smack talk him. New York media or Peter Parker himself."
“Aw," Peter started, "but I'm so—" He paused when he realized what Johnny was wearing. He must have had a long day at work; he usually loved seeing Johnny in blue. "You're ungrounded?"
"Captain America’s asked for our assistance personally. There’s some sort of inflagration happening down on tenth avenue with the Phoenix left, right and center of it."
"Oh," Peter said. His smile slipped a little. Tenth Avenue wasn't too far from ESU. "I suppose you'd better go, then."
Johnny eyeballed him. "I said our assistance, or did you miss that part?"
"You were distracting me with your hot everything," Peter said, gesturing at the offending beautiful everything in question. "Are you sure ?"
"We're both ungrounded, I am sure . So hurry and suit up so I can pretend to ignore you in favor of my loving boyfriend."
"You make it sound so appealing."
"Mm, later there'll be some peeling. Peeling off our suits, maybe sharing a bath."
Peter squinted. "You'd better stop that right there."
"Mm, guess you won't fit in your suit very comfortably if I continued."
"That," Peter said, "and you're gonna ruin my experiments, what with you being hot like the burning sun. They're temperature-sensitive."
Johnny walked Peter out, receiving the stink eye from Liz Allan on the way out, and Johnny regretfully flamed off ahead, because Peter had spent the last two weeks not wearing his costume beneath his clothes. It had been weird. Tugging on the spandex again felt like coming home.
Fighting was fun, everything that Peter needed, and the Phoenix was on form, sending fire blasts out in every direction. Peter was almost disappointed when the X-Men finally got on the scene too, and the Phoenix fled up to the sky, and up, and up .
"Damn," Johnny sighed, flaming over to Peter's side where he was perched on the side of a building and hovering. Captain Marvel was leading a cohort of several of the Avengers, including Iron Man and Thor, to follow her. "I really hate the people who got superpowers who can still breathe in a vacuum."
"I'm just jealous they're going into space," Peter sighed. "When I was a kid I thought I was going to get to join NASA."
Johnny frowned. "Why didn't you? You're like, what, the third smartest person in the world?"
"Eh. Something like that."
Peter shrugged and stared upwards, to where stars were starting to show through, and had to fight to push down the usual wave of sad regret that bubbled in the back of his brain when he remembered his childhood and teenage obsession with space travel. "The medical."
Johnny inhaled, loud enough to be heard over the chaos of the beginnings of a superhero clean-up session; the Phoenix had escaped, but had left a ton of chaos behind. "Oh."
"It's difficult to explain to NASA that you've been bitten by a radioactive spider and that's why you've broken all their physical tests." Peter pulled a face. "Not without them taking me away and cutting me up to see how I tick."
"And then there was me," Johnny said. "Going into space at age fifteen, just tagging along after my sister."
"I'm only jealous until I remember what happened to you," Peter said.
Johnny beamed. "I've been hot my whole life. What's a little added actual flame?"
"Well, it's still best not to linger on the past, especially when the present is so complicated," Peter said. "Do we know why the Phoenix has gone zay-cray?" Peter gestured up at the atmosphere.
Johnny pulled a face. "Would you believe me if I said it was an incident involving a superhero cheating on another superhero?"
"Ugh, irony." Peter shook himself. "Come on, let's help with the clean up."
Johnny nodded, and flamed down to where Captain America and the Falcon were working together to right a fallen billboard.
Peter swung around and helped make sure all the civilians are getting the right medical attention, before working with Johnny to lift a car out from where it had gotten stuck upside down on top of the skyscraper, and when they got it down to the ground, Peter lifted his hand up to give Johnny a high-five.
Only for Captain America to suddenly appear, standing bodily between them. Peter had to stifle a laugh when Johnny's hand didn't stop, and he high-fived the side of Steve Rogers' head.
"Spider-Man, Johnny," Steve greeted. His mouth was pressed into a firm line. "Don't you think one of you might be better suited... elsewhere?"
Johnny made a loud noise of disapproval. "Uh... no? What are you even trying to imply?"
"Johnny," Peter sighed, because it was obvious.
"Don't Johnny me," Johnny hissed, and he opened his mouth to say more, but they were interrupted by Iron Man blazing down out of the sky, landing near them with a dramatic flourish.
Steve looked torn for a brief second, and then turned to Tony. "Status of the Phoenix?"
"She's gone for the outer planets, out where mere mortals cannot follow," Tony said, flipping his mask up so the next words weren't modulated. "Carol and Thor are following to make sure she stays gone for now. Uh, what's going on here?"
"Daddy's peeved at the kids acting up," Johnny muttered.
Tony's eyebrows quirked at Steve, and Steve sighed.
"I just thought maybe Spider-Man had done enough damage to the Human Torch's reputation, and it might be an idea for them to remain apart on the battlefield for now," Steve said, slightly through gritted teeth. "It's unprofessional for them to be seen together for the moment. And Parker's your friend, Spider-Man. You need to remember there's a real person hurting from this... gossip."
Peter glanced quickly at Tony and Johnny, both who looked eternally amused, the bastards. He had to resist the urge to sob on Tony's shoulder. There was no point in fuelling a new rumor on which home Spider-Man was wrecking this week. But he was weary, and tired of Johnny being hassled, and exhausted of all the misunderstandings. "Do you even know Parker?" Peter asked. "Or is he just a photo in a crappy tabloid?"
Steve frowned, folding his arms over his chest. Johnny looked surprised. But it was hard to remember Captain America was Peter's lifetime idol when he was lecturing him over one single mistake. "Of course I do. Tony talks about him all the time."
"You do?" Peter startled, looking at Tony.
"Of course," Tony said. "I think he's amazing."
"I do too," Johnny said, soft and fond.
Peter made a noise he would deny later.
"So you'll understand--" Steve started, and Peter sighed, and grabbed at his arm.
"This way," Peter said, and yanked him into the nearest building. Tony and Johnny shared a look of surprise and followed after in a hurry. Steve looked startled, but let Peter drag him, and he lifted his cowl off.
"What are we--?" Steve started.
Peter reached out with his spider-senses, briefly checked that no one was watching, and then yanked off his mask and stared at Steve impatiently.
"Yep," Tony said, patting Steve on the back. "Makes more sense now, huh?"
"You weren't to know," Johnny said. "But we messed up. We'll be more careful in the future."
"I," Steve said, and faltered, tilting his head. "Do. And maybe try to just-- fight apart. For a while. Until this all blows over. You know what the paparazzi are like. They'll misunderstand anything as long as it's a good photograph."
"Got it," Peter said, nodding seriously.
"C'mon, big guy," Tony said. "Let's go clean up."
"We'll cover you keeping yet another secret from me later," Steve said, letting Tony lead him out.
"That wasn't my secret to tell," Tony said, closing the door behind them.
"We'll leave separately, then, I guess," Johnny said, reluctantly.
"Yeah," Peter sighed. "But do you think I could come over tonight?"
"Mm, please do," Johnny said, briefly snuggling into Peter's side. "I have plans."
"I like plans with you," Peter said, reluctantly letting Johnny go.
Johnny winked. "Who said they were with you? I've got a hot spandex-wearing bit on the side, y'know."
Peter rolled his eyes and tugged his mask back on. Johnny was a dork, but, well. He was Peter's dork.
This would all pass. Steve was right - the paparazzi could take anything and make a fuss over it. In time, the story would fade, and Peter could go right back to loving Johnny without having to defend himself at every step.
Except, it wasn't just himself Peter had to defend.
Peter didn't bother with a disguise - enough time had passed that it couldn't be considered strange for him to visit his own boyfriend, right? He probably should have, though, if only to sneak past his own family.
Because that's who was there waiting for him, in the Baxter building lobby -- Aunt May, MJ and Harry, standing and talking loudly with Sue, Reed and Ben, with a frustrated looking Johnny behind them, shaking his head.
"It's not of your damn business," Johnny said, looking weary.
Sue looked upset. "Johnny--"
"Why can't you just leave us alone?" Johnny demanded.
Peter's eyes widened and he hurried over to join them. "What the hell's going on?"
MJ and Aunt May were standing together, arms linked.
"Peter," MJ said. "We came to bring you home."
Peter squinted. What the hell? "What are you--?"
"C'mon, bro," Harry said. He looked a little uncomfortable, wrapped up in a coat and scarf and carrying his tablet in his hands. "We're here for you, you know we are."
"If you're here for me," Peter said, looking around at everyone, completely confused. "Then maybe you'd better talk straight for a damn minute. And maybe stop butting the hell into something you have no right to butt into."
"We care about you, Peter," Aunt May said, her mouth downturned. "And what this man is doing to you behind your back--"
"I'm not doing anything," Johnny hissed, "and I can't believe you're on their side too," he added, glaring at the rest of the Fantastic Four. Ben shuffled, and didn't meet his glare.
"It's obviously not healthy," Sue said, sounding distressed.
"What the hell is going on, " Peter yelled.
Johnny huffed. "There was another stupid picture in the stupid paper, and it's nothing --"
Peter glared at Harry and held out his hand impatiently. Harry handed over his tablet, his eyebrows knotted. "I'm really sorry, bro," Harry said.
"Let me be the judge of that," Peter snapped, and he pressed the button to wake Harry's tablet. He squinted down at the most recent set of photos. It was some clever editing, really -- Spider-Man and the Human Torch fighting alongside each other, leaning against each other to lift the car. The near-miss high-five. A time-skip photo showing Johnny and Spider-Man both coming out of the same building.
Peter definitely could feel the incoming headache. He rubbed at his temples and mutely handed Harry his tablet back.
"Peter--" MJ started.
"Go away," Peter said, lifting his head and looking at her, before glancing at the others.
"Peter," Aunt May inhaled sharply, shocked.
"I mean it," Peter said, his voice low, his fists bunching for a moment. "This isn't anything the hell to do with any of you."
"Peter, we're just concerned for you, for both of you," Sue said, stepping forwards a little, "this clearly isn't healthy--"
"Have any of you stopped for a minute and asked whether I might be okay with this?" Peter said, gesturing at Harry's tablet. "That maybe we're all consenting adults and I'm happy about it?"
"I know you, Peter," MJ said. "You don't share well with others. Look how long it took you to be okay sharing me with Harry. You kept us apart socially for years ."
Mostly because Harry's dad kept trying to kill me and it was really difficult to be around him much at all for a long time, Peter thought, sighing internally.
"Both Johnny and I have said, several times, that we have talked this over and we are happy as we are," Peter said. "Why is this so hard for you to understand?"
"We're just looking out for you--" Harry said.
" Bullshit, " Peter snapped, without even feeling too guilty at Aunt May's shocked "Peter! " in the background. "I'm so freaking tired of this." He looked at Johnny, who looked so miserable, and torn, and Peter understood, because being kept apart for a while due to the circumstances had sucked, and for their families to be so unsupportive... Johnny and Peter lived for their families. It took a lot out of both of them. It was unbearable. "I have to tell them, Johnny."
Johnny's jaw jutted mulishly. "No, Peter. No. You know what we talked about."
"I know. But I can't have them acting like you're the guilty party in this," Peter said, staring at him. "I can't. I can't stand it."
"What are you talking about?" MJ asked, looking suddenly lost.
"The truth is--" Peter started.
"Pete, c'mon," Johnny said, wringing his hands, miserable.
"--if you think Johnny's been cheating on me, then by the same standards, I've been cheating on Johnny," Peter said, tilting his chin up and glaring at the rest. Johnny startled, and then sighed, leaning against the nearest pillar and looking older than he had that morning. "For years ."
Sue and Reed exchanged a look, suddenly looking on edge.
"What?" MJ actually laughed, and Aunt May and Harry both looked extremely sceptical. "Pull the other one, Pete."
"Seriously," Harry said, "Johnny we believe, but you ?"
"Me," Peter said, glaring.
"I don't believe it," MJ said, flat out. "I see you practically every day--"
"And I vanish every day, with terrible excuses," Peter said, shaking his head slowly. "Since I turned fifteen, there's been huge missing gaps of my time that none of you can account for. Do you have any idea where I go in that time? What I do?"
MJ, Harry and Aunt May all had matching, dawning expressions of horror.
"You should be ashamed of yourselves," Peter said, looking around to include Johnny's family too. "Both Johnny and I have said, multiple times, that we are okay. You're grown adults. I've been involved in Spider-Man's career for years. Years. Did none of you stop for even a moment to consider that maybe he, Johnny and I had an arrangement? Are you all completely close-minded to the concept? It's called polyamory. Look it up." He straightened his shirt, and jerked his head in Johnny's direction. "Now I believe we had plans," he said to Johnny.
Johnny nodded, and straightened, walking over to Peter and holding his hand out. Peter took it, feeling defiant, and with one last withering look at his family, he walked with Johnny to the nearest elevator.
When they were inside, the doors closed, and Peter crumbled against Johnny, shaking but dry-eyed. Johnny stroked his hair. "Sshh. It's okay. It's okay."
"Is it?" Peter mumbled.
"Yeah," Johnny said, tipping Peter's chin up and kissing him softly. "That was crossing the line. I know they know that. Give it time. They'll forgive and forget."
"MJ? Aunt May? Forget?" Peter snorted. "I don't think they know how."
"Forgive, then," Johnny said. "Although, y'know, consenting adults, there's nothing to forgive. Our torrid affair with Spider-Man is mutual, after all." He smirked. "Sue's expression when you landed the polyamory, man, I'm going to hack the security feed later and get photos of that for sure. "
"Oh, god," Peter said, "I just told my family I basically have threesomes with you and Spider-Man."
"Not necessarily," Johnny said. "Maybe you just learned how to share your toys over the years."
"Heh," Peter said.
"Anyway, we need to let them get over themselves," Johnny said. "I think I mentioned I had plans?"
"Yeah?" Peter said.
"You talked earlier about how you like space so much," Johnny said. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to Peter's neck that made his knees tremble.
"Yeah?" Peter murmured, letting Johnny pull him out of the elevator and towards his apartment.
Johnny smirked. "I think I'm going to spend some time tonight making you see stars, " he said, and punctuated it by groping Peter shamelessly.
Peter rolled his eyes, but he also laughed and let Johnny tug him along. Their families might think they knew what was going on, and they were probably now thinking terrible things about Peter, but Johnny knew the truth, and that was enough.
Everything else was survivable.
She watches. Nestled in a dark corner of the galaxy, she waits, and she watches.
The rage burns, like a thousand stars.
He cheated, he cheated, he cheated. It doesn't matter that it was all in the little telepath's mind. She loved him, the heart she inhabited loved him, and he LEFT HER. He left them. He strayed. He betrayed them.
The Phoenix watches and waits for the strong ones to leave, patiently, patiently.
Cheaters never prosper, she thinks.
And tomorrow, all the cheaters will burn .
Chapter 4: Free
The first indication that Peter had that something wasn't quite right:
He turned up for work maybe ten seconds late.
and Liz gave him a hard time, even though she usually only reamed him out for the delays that were longer than half an hour.
She docked him half an hour's worth of wages.
Peter tried to explain that there had been a delay on the tracks, but Liz rolled her eyes and told him to get out.
Never one to take someone having a bad day too personally, unless of course Peter was the cause of the bad day due to not saving someone fast enough, Peter filed it away as one of Liz's grumpy periods, and he continued hurrying down to the Osborn building.
The second indication that something was wrong:
Peter checked all of his cell cultures,
but their growth levels hadn't changed since last week.
They smelled different, too.
Someone had messed with them?
Peter resigned himself to having to do more replicates than he'd originally meant to, which was irritating, but also kind of to be expected at ESU, where no one was paid enough to care about someone else's work.
The third indication:
Peter made it into his eleven o'clock class just on time.
And most of the students ignored him or stared at him,
which wasn't anything new,
until one of them came up to him and threw a beaker of something directly in his face.
It was absolute bedlam all of a sudden. Dr. Connors started shouting until security came and hauled the girl away, while Gwen Stacy hurried in and shoved Peter into the corner, forcefully jamming the water irrigator over his face and holding him there for forty minutes while Dr. Connors dismissed the lab in horror.
It was acid, Parker realized. Someone threw acid in his face? Why?
"You end up in some real messes, Parker," Gwen Stacy sighed, patting his back. She eyeballed him strangely for a moment, and then called backwards. "Dr. Connors? I think we got lucky and it's just salt water, not acid."
Peter froze. Gwen pinched him hard where Dr. Connors couldn't see. Peter couldn't see it either, because of the whole water-being-flushed-into-his-eye thing.
"Are you sure?" Dr. Connors said.
"Well, his flesh isn't burning off, that's a clue," Gwen said.
"Thank goodness," Dr. Connors breathed. "I mean, this is still a problem. I'll cancel the ambulance if you're sure. Pete, you okay?"
"My face is cold and my pride is weirdly hurt," Peter said. "But yeah, Gwen's right."
Dr. Connors sighed loudly. "I'm still going to have to expel her," he said. "What the hell, kids these days."
Dr. Connors hurried away to deal with the situation further. As soon as he left, Gwen unceremoniously turned off the eye irrigator and dumped a handful of paper towels in Peter's hand.
"Dry off, you look like a drowned rat," Gwen said.
"Today is so weird," Peter moaned, but used the towels to dry off as best as he could. "Uh, do you have any idea why--?" He glanced at Gwen.
"You know if you'd dumped Storm like we suggested you wouldn't be in this mess," Gwen said, but she pulled something up on her phone and handed it over.
THE SPIDER-MAN HOMEWRECKING SAGA DEEPENS! the Bugle screamed in size 100 capslock. Peter stared at the story in disbelief, blinking rapidly. His powers meant he'd healed rapidly from what had definitely been acid, but the pain of it lingered, like a bad sunburn. The article whined dramatically about how Peter had broken Johnny Storm's heart with tryst with Spider-Man, leading Johnny to find solace and revenge in Spider-Man's bewitching, homewrecking arms.
There was a photograph too, albeit slightly blurry, of Peter and Johnny looking unhappy, stood in the Baxter building lobby.
Of course the article was fundamentally wrong, but it was very clear that someone had been in the Baxter building lobby who shouldn't be. Or maybe they should be -- Reed only rented the top floors of the building. Peter should have insisted the whole discussion had taken place somewhere more private, but he'd been so angry. He'd been so stupid . And now it was across the internet that Peter was a cheater too.
Oh, well. Johnny knew the truth. Their families would have to get over it at some point.
"I think the girl is part of Storm's craziest online fan club," Gwen said, her mouth curling. "They're pretty pissed off with you. You're lucky you're like human teflon. That acid should have landed you in hospital."
Peter froze, halfway through the action of handing her the phone back. "Uh," he said. "You said that was, uh, water--"
Gwen raised one eyebrow. "Whatever you say, homewrecker."
Peter sighed. "Thanks for letting me know. Is there anything I can do for you? To say thank you?"
"You could actually say thank you."
"Thank you," Peter said, slowly. He sighed and rested against the sink. "Connors isn't going to let me stay here, is he."
Gwen shrugged, but her face spelled out her doubt.
"Great," Peter muttered. "Because I'm so good at finding employment that pays my rent."
"Does your photography not quite cover it?"
Peter grunted. "Barely, when I'm lucky. Besides, I liked it here. It's fun work, good hours. And Aunt May says I'm unbearable when I'm not busy."
"Yeah, 'cause chasing bad guys and saving the world, that doesn't keep you busy at all ," Gwen said, in her best sarcastic tone.
What? Peter tried his best not to freeze guiltily, and he focused on carefully removing his lab coat, trying to quickly roll it up and hide the acid burn marks that were unmistakeable proof. "I have no idea--"
"Parker," Gwen said, "unlike the rest of the people in your life, I spent time figuring out the answer to the problem. I considered all the possibilities with the evidence on hand. And there was only one real solution that fit with the Peter Parker I know that also correlated with you still being a decent guy. And the Peter Parker I know, he might be a bit of a flake on occasion, but he's a decent guy."
Peter stared at her, not even knowing how to react.
"Also, I'm hella smart and you survived having acid thrown in your face," Gwen pointed out. "And you're relatively smart too, so don't insult my intelligence by playing stupid here."
"Well," Peter said slowly, and staying purposefully vague just in case Gwen was on some weird extended metaphor for something else, added, "sometimes the stupid thing isn't an act. It's not like there's a guidebook to all of this around."
Gwen smiled wryly. "In another world we might have been real friends, I think. But I'm smart, Peter." She poked at his clumsily rolled-up lab coat, at one of the acid burns that still showed. "I can see getting too close to you, it kind of gets you burned." She reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "But remember, you're not alone, Spider-Man. And New York needs you, even when there are times we forget to love you."
Peter huffed through a smile, hearing his superhero name on her lips surreal, but-- it was nice, too. "Gwendolyne Maxine Stacy, you're an incredible woman."
"I know," she beamed, and leaned in, pressing a kiss to his cheek. "Keep swinging. You'll get through this." She paused. "And you might want to clean up the acid on the floor before Connors notices."
"Shit," Peter breathed, and grabbed for the cleaning equipment.
Gwen laughed, a thick throaty sound. "Nice to see that New York's finest superheroes totally have it together," she said, and left him to clean up, which was more than fair.
After the door closed, another voice broke the silence.
"Did she just kiss you?"
Peter looked up sharply from cleaning up the acid to see Johnny coming into the room. He smiled, unable to help himself. "Johnny. What are you doing here?"
"Eh, y'know," Johnny said, picking up Peter's lab coat and running his fingers almost unconsciously over the PARKER that Aunt May stitched in blue thread over the pocket. "At least Allan let me past the front door this time without threatening to shiv me."
"I wasn't quite so lucky today," Peter said grimly.
"Saw the news, huh?" Johnny winced, guiltily. "I'm so sorry, Pete. Reed says someone hacked the building's security feed. It went all over the news, my fan club saw-- as soon as I saw the post from the student in your class saying she was going to get revenge for me, I came straight away." He held up the lab coat and the acid burn marks. "I'm sorry I wasn't quick enough."
Peter shrugged. "Apparently Gwen figured out the truth and she had my back."
"Good. You need more people on your side," Johnny said. "Speaking of, can you be literally physically by my side any time soon? Because, I dunno, my boyfriend had acid thrown in his face and I'm kind of freaking out about it."
"Oh, god," Peter breathed, and dumped his bundle of paper towels in the trash before reaching for Johnny and pushing into him. Johnny made a sound that made Peter's heart clench tightly for a moment. "I'm okay, Johnny. Here. Feel me. I'm right here."
"If they'd hurt you, if they'd actually really permanently hurt you because of me--" Johnny breathed, and clung a little too tightly, but Peter didn't care. He'd always take as much of Johnny that Johnny wanted to give.
"How did you even notice what your fan club was doing?" Peter asked.
"They kept mentioning me in the planning tweets," Johnny said. "My fans are kind of idiots. Don't tell them I said that."
"Not all of them are idiots," Peter said. "I mean, they like you for a start. That counts for something. And hopefully the smart ones are already smacking down the idiots."
"I think they are," Johnny said, his voice muffled by Peter's neck. "This is all so messed up. I'll be glad when this is over."
Peter nodded, and then startled as the door smacked open, but Johnny didn't let him go, so he didn't embarrass himself by automatically crouching into a battle-ready pose, so that was good.
It was MJ and Harry. They were both breathing hard. MJ looked like she had been crying.
"We came as soon as we heard," MJ said, hurtling over towards them. She punched Johnny in the arm. "Your freaking stupid fan club, what the hell ," she yelled, and then burst out crying and threw herself into the embrace, pushing in and sobbing.
"I'm okay, MJ," Peter said, and he almost wanted to laugh in relief, because he was worried their argument last night would have broken their friendship, but if she was this freaked out, it was obviously going to work out. Johnny had said so, but Peter hadn't fully believed him until now.
"Thank goodmess," Harry said, wandering over, obviously not wanting to join in the hug. It didn't stop Johnny reaching an arm out and yanking him in. Harry knocked into Peter with a grunt, but he gamely joined in. "I'm so glad you're okay, man. The internet said you had acid thrown in your face?"
MJ made a large sniffing sound. "I'm so glad she missed."
Peter swallowed, and in as measured a tone as he could manage, he said, slowly, "She didn't."
MJ huffed, amused. "Yeah, your face looks burned and melted."
"Pete," Johnny said, softly. Warning. But Peter shook his head. Hearing Gwen say Spider-Man, well, it had solidified things in Peter's mind.
"It's time they knew," Peter said. "Gwen took it fine. And she made a good point. People close to me get burned, whether they know the truth or not. They deserve to be given the choice to step back." Peter stepped back, breaking the hug, but he held onto Johnny's hand, willing him to understand.
Johnny stared, and eventually he nodded. "I'll always stand with you. And hey," he smiled, "I'm lucky regardless. Burning is kind of my jam."
MJ and Harry exchanged a look, and then, in a small voice, MJ said, "Peter?"
"It happened when I was fifteen," Peter said, turning so that Johnny is at his back, and MJ and Harry are in front of him. He looked at them seriously. "And by the time I finish telling you this, you're going to hate me for a while. And that's okay. But I want you to know I just wanted to keep you safe. And things were complicated, for a long time." He looked at Harry then, miserable with the memory of his tanglements with Harry's father, and Harry shook his head, obviously confused. "But my intentions have always been good. And I hope that means one day you'll forgive me."
"Peter," Johnny said.
"I have to tell them," Peter said, "come on--"
"No, I get that," Johnny said, and then, in a tenser voice, "but maybe you can give them the cliff notes version now and elaborate later?"
"Huh?" Peter let Johnny turn him, and Peter followed Johnny's worried gaze, and his stomach dropped at the sight. Standing outside the Osborn building, at the bottom of the long run of white steps that led up to the main entrance, was a single figure, surrounded by energy. "The Phoenix," Peter realized.
"Shit," Harry said, "isn't that the X-Men chick who got possessed by an alien and tried to blow up tenth avenue yesterday?"
"Can she not take no for an answer?" Peter sighed.
"I'd better go," Johnny said, jerking his head at the sight, and pulling out his communicator to call it in.
" We'd better go," Peter corrected, and started to move with Johnny.
"Uh, buster, you're coming with us while your superhero boyband boyfriend goes out there," MJ said. "Am I right or am I right?"
"So right," Harry said.
"PETER PARKER!" Peter winced as the voice boomed out; Jean Grey's voice but changed, amplified by the sound of a thousand angels singing in a discordant chorus. "COME OUT AND FACE ME."
"MJ is so right, you are not going out there," Johnny said, fiercely.
"No," Peter said, "Peter Parker's not going out there."
And then he ran, before any of them could stop him.
Relying on Johnny not to flame up in the lab because of the number of chemicals around had given Peter the headstart he needed to duck into a small room, stash his clothes in a corner, and swing out of the window in full costume: since being ungrounded, despite how badly it had gone, he'd taken to wearing his Spidey suit under his clothes again, and it turned out to have been a good idea.
Peter swung outside, landed in a crouch in front of the Phoenix and glared at her.
"I was looking for Parker," the Phoenix snarled, thankfully in a less inhuman voice, but still with the sharp edge of broken glass and endless fire. "But you'll do."
It was nice to note that while the Phoenix had taken over Jean Grey's body, Jean must have still been fighting down in there somewhere, holding onto her gift of telepathy so the Phoenix couldn't use it.
"What do you want with Parker?" Peter called out. He was vaguely aware of Johnny flaming up in the background, and of a couple of superheroes already making it onto the perimeter of the scene; he was grateful to notice that they were shepherding citizens away, letting Spider-Man test the temperature of the fight first. The Avengers still trusted him, even if most of New York thought he was a homewrecking slut.
"He broke his bond ," the Phoenix said. "He cheated . I have vowed to wipe all cheaters off this lousy planet! " Her eyes blazed white, and her fists clenched into a ball of energy. "So get me Peter Parker now so I can literally break his pathetic human heart."
Well, it was weird to know that even crazy despotic aliens read Peter's bad New York press. Spider-senses tingling, Peter dived to the side to avoid a blast of energy, and the Phoenix yelled, arms spreading wide, energy crackling out. There were screams -- the area wasn't fully evacuated yet.
"Hey, come on, let's discuss this like rational not-quite-human people in body hugging spandex," Peter yelled.
"Bring me Parker so I can burn him alive, and then maybe we can talk."
"Not gonna happen," Peter yelled. He couldn't web up anywhere high, because the blasts would sever his web fluid, but he had to chance to stop this bout of crazy. Well, maybe for a moment, and maybe only if he could get close enough to her, but the people still in the area that hadn't quite escaped yet would probably be glad he tried, at least.
"Heart breaker! Life ruiner!" Phoenix yelled, and Peter screamed back, nonsensical noises, and that seemed to confuse her, just for a moment, which was all Peter really needed to duck around her attacks and get in closer.
"Just give me one minute," Peter yelled, arching his body and neatly missing getting a sensitive part of his anatomy burned off. "Let me say one thing without you blasting energy at me, and then if you still want to gut Peter Parker, I'll see what we can do. One thing, no games."
The Phoenix did falter, then, for a second, and then she flung up her hands, extending a large barrier of white energy that settled around them, like a dome. Peter could hear Johnny's exhale of disappointment behind them; Johnny had obviously been trying to flame in close enough to join the fight, and now the Phoenix's shield had stopped that.
And oh, yeah, Peter was now stuck in a dome of violent energy with a crazy alien lifeform who apparently suddenly despised all cheaters in the world, while both Peter and Spider-Man were currently vying for position as the most-famous-cheaters-of-New-York.
Life was glorious, sometimes.
"Neither Johnny, Peter Parker or I have cheated in any form and I can prove it," Peter said. "No tricks, no games, just proof - here and now. Are you willing to let me prove it to you."
"If there are no games," the Phoenix said. "If there is a trick, or I believe you are lying to me, I will roast your flesh and eat your heart."
No pressure, then. Peter swallowed. This really wasn't where he wanted to do something like this. And the whole thing had started with a fear people would know his identity. But he didn't have a choice right now.
Peter reached up and pulled off his mask. "Phoenix, I am Peter Parker."
Well, Peter could scratch off the "surprising an alien entity into utter speechlessness for five minutes before she freaked out and escaped back into space" item off his bucket list. He put his mask on and sank onto the ground and laughed, somewhat hysterically.
Johnny came in and sank down next to him and just patted him on the shoulder.
When Peter could breathe, he asked, "Do you think anyone got a photo of that?"
"I don't know," Johnny said, looking a little haunted. "We'd better go somewhere safe until we know for sure. My place?"
"Swing away now while you can, change into something casual just in case, and go to Sue and Reed's apartment, that's the safest one," Johnny said. "I'll get everyone and meet you there. Whatever the damage is, we'll handle it."
Peter wished he had Johnny's confidence.
He did as Johnny said, swinging to one of his reserve packs hidden around the city, climbing into non-descript clothes and shoving a hat down low on his face, wishing he had a hood to hide under too. And sunglasses. Maybe another mask.
No one really bothered him until he got to the Baxter building; one of the security guys did give him an apology about the public lobby security feed being hacked into, though, which was nice. Peter ducked into the elevator, and Reed was apparently already watching and waiting for him, because it went directly to Reed and Sue's apartment even though the numbers for different floors were highlighted on the panel.
Sue gave him a mug of tea with a sheepish, guarded expression, and she guided him to the couch. "Johnny didn't say what happened, but he said you were both okay, but it was bad?"
Peter shrugged. His mind was racing. He didn't know anything. He didn't know how Sue would react to the news he was Spider-Man. "Maybe?" She wouldn't hate him, but she'd judge him for all the lying, at least for a little while. She'd probably be relieved he wasn't breaking Johnny's heart?
Johnny was fast, and he had MJ, Harry and a windswept looking Aunt May in tow. He was pleasantly surprised to see Gwen come in too; she gave him a nod of solidarity, and went to peer at Reed's book collection, spanning a long high wall filled from floor to ceiling.
Reed and Ben came in, Ben with his large arms crossed over his chest. Harry looked at Ben nervously and scooched behind MJ.
"Okay," MJ said, nervously, after it became apparent that no one was going to sit down. The atmosphere was strained, to put it mildly. "I think we need an explanation now."
"We need to see how bad it is," Johnny said, moving in to stand next to Peter. He had a remote control in his hand. Peter nodded, and Johnny turned on the TV.
"Breaking news!" the anchor said, chirpily. "The mutant villain Phoenix, formerly known as telekinetic menace Jean Grey--"
"Where do they get this rubbish," Ben complained.
"Sshh," Sue hushed.
"--today tried to attack the Empire State University in downtown Manhattan," the anchor continued.
"Isn't that where you work?" Aunt May asked in a near-whisper, obviously horrified. Harry and Peter nodded in unison. "I'm so glad you're both okay."
"After a confrontation with Spider-Man, the Phoenix escaped, leaving the vigilante hero unable to restrain her," the anchor said. "We have exclusive footage--"
Peter stared at the screen, and-- Oh.
The footage was heavily blurred, the Phoenix's energy crackling across. You could see Peter taking off his mask, for the few minutes it was removed, but by the time the energy left the footage clear, Peter was Spider-Man again.
His identity hadn't been compromised.
There was silence in the room as the anchor continued to explain the damage that had happened and the handful of heroes who had turned up to escort civilians to safety.
"So this is all to show us that Spider-Man and Johnny still have their--- thing going on?" MJ asked incredulously.
Peter sighed, rubbing at his forehead. "No, that's not-- Well, yes, but not just . Ah, why can I only ever manage coherence in the face of endless danger?"
"You're not that great at it then," Johnny offered.
"Mm, so supportive. This moment reminds me of why I love you so much."
"It's my face," Johnny said, beaming, "you're addicted to it."
"Johnny," Sue said, "I think we still need an explanation."
Johnny looked at Peter. "You don't have to," he whispered.
Peter looked back at him, and reached over and squeezed his hands. "I know."
"Spider-Man and Human Torch have been in the news recently for more non-heroic reasons," the anchor continued loudly, "most recently for footage of the two locking lips after battle on one of America's greatest symbols of freedom--"
Peter grimaced as the TV started playing the footage of him and Johnny kissing. Repeatedly. And then in slow motion.
"Mom, dad, what's going on?" a small voice said from the far doorway.
"Wish we knew," MJ muttered, as everyone turned to the doorway to see Franklin and Valeria curiously moving into the room. The two were holding hands, looking around the room at all the guests curiously.
And then both of them saw the footage of the kissing happening on the TV screen. Franklin's mouth dropped open, and Valeria tugged them both closer to stare at it.
"When did that happen?" Franklin said.
"Oh no," Sue muttered. She looked at Aunt May. "We've been trying to protect the kids from-- from that," she said, gesturing at the screen. "We didn't want them to feel anything different about their uncle. His activities have no reflection on how much he loves them."
"Oh my goodness," Valeria said, her eyes wide. She turned to stare at Johnny. "Wow."
"Wow is right, " Franklin yelled, and let go of Valeria to hurl himself at Peter. Peter automatically caught him. "You're my favorite superhero ever, Spider-Man!"
"Uh," Peter managed.
"Shit," MJ said in the background, a little loudly.
"My kids," Sue hissed, and MJ yelped -- Sue probably elbowed her, then.
Johnny started to laugh.
"It's not funny, " Peter hissed.
"It kind of is," Johnny said, gesturing at the screen.
"I always wondered how these worked," Valeria said, tugging at Peter's wrist and trying to pull out the concealed webshooters. "You'll have to show me."
"A little help here ?," Peter hissed.
"Nah, it's just hilarious," Johnny said, shrugging. "What is it, seven years of hard work to keep your identity safe to protect your family and loved ones, and you get outed by a pair of kids?"
"A pair of genius kids," Peter defended, loudly.
"That makes... much more sense than any of our other assumptions, you have to admit," Reed said.
"But-- this-- this means my dad tried to kill you, a bunch of times, I--?" Harry trailed off.
"Oh my," Aunt May said, a few times in a row.
Ben prised Franklin and Valeria away from Peter so that Reed and Sue could get them away from any more accidental swearing incidents.
MJ used the lack of a Franklin-shaped body shield to punch Peter in the face. Even with super strength and healing, she had a hell of a right hook.
There was angsting, and pointing, and yelling, and shouting.
This, at least, was a little bit more what Peter had envisaged.
Time was going to heal nearly every relationship. Peter was the least sure about Harry. He'd gone very quiet and wasn't talking to him. Peter deserved that, he supposed.
Sue, Reed and Ben seemed quite okay with it, after the chaos. He was right: they were happy he loved Johnny, and happy Peter could protect himself if one of the Fantastic Four-specific villains tried to take revenge on Johnny by attacking him. Reed set up all of Peter's friends and loved ones with added security. It wasn't perfect, but Gwen really had been right - they were close to him, and thus in risk whether they knew or not. Peter couldn't be everywhere at once.
MJ's rage burned fiercely, but briefly, and then she was the worst enabler ever. She formed some sort of club with Gwen Stacy, and they made Peter repay the "epic lying betrayal" by enlisting him whenever they needed anything large and heavy moved.
Dr. Connors fired Peter reluctantly, as expected. But Reed rehired Peter as an intern, after realizing the reason he fired him (for giving Spider-Man the code to his lab) was kind of borked (because, well, unknowingly, by telling Peter, Reed had been the one to give Spider-Man the code to his lab.) Peter would have enough lab hours to get onto the one-year teaching course. He was going to become a science teacher. Johnny was thrilled at the idea, except for the part where Peter refused to teacher-student roleplay with him. (He got over it. Especially when Peter "accidentally" acquired some handcuffs.)
Franklin and Valeria were beyond thrilled. Sue was thrilled when Peter refused to let Valeria look at the webshooters, though, obviously struck with mental terror by the idea of her genius kid with a weapon. Peter's ego was also quietly thrilled at the refusal, because Valeria would probably figure out how to improve them in seconds, and his self-esteem was already dented enough by being outed by a couple of kids without being outsmarted in his area of expertise too.
Johnny was adjusting well to a world where he didn't have to lie about his boyfriend's activities any more. Sue and Ben found it funny to try and see how many euphemisms Johnny still accidentally used for Peter's webswinging. Johnny found it funny to point out that kids figured out something they couldn't. He liked how much they squirmed for automatically thinking the worst of him, but he didn't take advantage of that guilt. At least, not too much.
The conversation with Aunt May had been the hardest. It took her weeks to even look him in the eye again.
"It is a shock," Aunt May said, slowly, "but I have to admit, it's better than the thoughts that had been keeping me up. I'm relieved to know that Spider-Man hadn't been grooming and molesting my nephew when he was an under-aged teenager."
Peter winced. "Yeah, uh, not my best lie."
New York eventually mostly forgot to label Spider-Man a homewrecker, except for a week when old footage came out - of Peter dragging Steve into a building to tell Captain America that Spider-Man couldn't cheat on his own boyfriend. It must have been a slow news week. Johnny saw the headline and couldn't stop laughing for a week.
Time passed, and time healed.
Peter and Johnny reclined together in their usual spot, Peter leaning against Johnny's side, Johnny's arm wrapped around him tightly. Off in the distance, the X-Men were successfully trooping off with the Phoenix finally in custody. The Phoenix had tried to go after President Clinton, and Peter got on the scene quickly enough to see Hillary mace her for the attempt, right in the eyeballs. Some of the sights Peter got to see as Spider-Man were glorious .
"I'm so glad Reed managed to invent that anti-paparazzi doohickey," Johnny said, fondly patting the device that would blur any long-distance footage of them. He pressed a kiss into Peter's hair, the mask unnecessary for the moment thanks to Reed. "I was gonna miss our usual makeout place."
Peter smiled. Lady Liberty had seen them through some tough spots. He was glad not to have to give her up. "It's a strange new world out there now," he said. "It's so weird that everyone knows now. I keep trying to lie, and their faces ."
"Sue's taken to baking me apology cookies," Johnny said. "I wish she wouldn't. Her baking is more alchemy than apology."
"Baking is a kind of alchemy."
"Yeah, but it's alchemy that's supposed to taste good." Johnny wrinkles his nose. "I don't suppose your Aunt is--?"
"She hasn't baked since she found out," Peter sighed. "My waistline is thankful, but my heart is sad."
"She'll come around. She loves you." Johnny tugged Peter closer. "I can't blame her for that."
"Aw, the romance of this moment. Blood in my hair, a super attractive bruise on your face--"
"She threw me into a building with her mind, that sort of thing isn't dodgeable."
"I love you too, flamebrain," Peter said.
Johnny kissed him, grinning into it. "Well, you're damaged goods, really," Johnny said, thumbing a parallel path below a cut on Peter's cheek with a light touch. "Who else would have you?"
"Hey, a dude named Dave in the cafeteria at ESU once gave me his number and a free pie," Peter said. "Imagine it. Free pie for life. Free crappy cafeteria coffee. Free mystery meat if I play my cards right." Johnny's pout was beautiful. Peter kissed it away. "I threw his number away, though, because I'm in love with this ridiculous dude with amazing hair."
"Mm, don't tell him you're up here with me," Johnny said. "Wouldn't want you to have the reputation of being a homewrecker, now, would we?"
Peter punched him in the shoulder and Johnny just laughed. It was a beautiful sound. Peter leaned into Johnny's offered embrace and together they looked across the water to where New York slumbered, scorched from its battles but protected by its defenders, safe for one more day.
And that's all she wrote, True Believers! Hope you've had a great Spideytorch week, I know I have! :D